March 12, 2020 Subject:
Flipside of Monty
The chief interest of this volume is to compare Eisenhower’s version of the war against that of his polar opposite, Montgomery of Alamein. Beyond this, its appeal is somewhat limited - a chronicling of well-known events by a competent but not compelling author, though its first edition would have had topical value in 1948.
The title ‘Crusade in Europe’ is a slight misnomer, for the story starts where it should, with the high-risk landings in Morocco and Algeria of the first American force to cross the Atlantic, the men being as green as most of their generals, including Supreme Commander Ike. Notably he hesitated to criticise his corps commander Lloyd Fredendall, now universally derided as a buffoon, while fretting needlessly about the chances of Spain entering the war at this relatively late stage.
In Normandy, he also seems to have been rather too lenient with Omar Bradley, blamed for failing to trap a whole German army in the Falaise Pocket, which could have shortened the war by months. This may have been influenced by Bradley’s unblemished record up till then, and his membership (with Ike) of the West Point Class of ’15, "the class the stars fell on".
Normandy, however, was where Ike started to disagree sharply with Monty over how to cross the Rhine. Ike favoured an invasion of Southern France, liberating Marseilles to ease supply problems. But Monty thought it would just push the enemy northwards into his face (which it did), and believed, like Churchill, that the Balkans were a more valuable prize, to be kept out of Stalin’s grasp. The upshot was that Ike firmly rejected Monty’s plan for a big single thrust at Berlin, in favour of a 3-pronged assault that Monty called ‘penny packets’. Few unbiased modern historians side with Monty.
But almost more interesting than the strategic arguments are the personal relations between the two men. We think of Monty as the mean-minded, snarling creature and Ike as the big, decent fellow having to dodge the brickbats. Yet Monty’s praise for Ike’s character and personality gushes out from his memoirs so often that we wonder if he’s having to compensate for other remarks about his inexperience as a soldier. For Ike never spoke to him again after reading them. (We should remember, though, that the original edition of Monty’s memoirs had to be revised to avoid a libel suit by Auchinleck, so other things may have had to be edited-out too.)
The present volume, of course, was published ten years before Monty’s memoirs, so there is no tit-for-tat issue here. How, then, is Monty rated in these pages? We immediately pick up a surprising chilliness in all the references to him - surprising because Ike later invited him to stay at the White House, played golf with him, and took him on a guided battlefield tour at Gettysburg, so they must have buried the hatchet at some point.
But there is no enthusiasm for Monty here. Only once does Ike issue a compliment - itemising a couple of his strengths as a military leader, quite clinically, as though dashing-off a hasty school report. He doesn’t think it worthwhile to recall their first meeting, or mention that he was originally due to work under Ike, helping to plan the North African invasion, until suddenly and unexpectedly summoned to Egypt. Nor does he spice the story with any of the little anecdotes that make the other man’s memoirs so readable. His gift to Monty of a Flying Fortress for the Italian campaign, out of pure generosity. Or a £5 bet made over dinner in Taormina that the war would be over by the end of 1944 - settled by Ike without quibble on Boxing Day of that year (jokingly reminding Monty that in war, a lot can change in five days!). He might even have mentioned that Hitler flew into a rage when he learned that his chief opponent in Europe bore an unmistakeably German name, originally ‘Eisenhauer’.
Many have declared that Ike was promoted above his talents. But he seems to have risen to his daunting responsibilities, resisting the sneers of (mostly) armchair critics. For example, he was virtually accused of treason for doing deals with the Vichy-appointed Admiral Darlan in North Africa. Today we can see that he took the ‘least worst’ option: no other decision would have enabled victory for those newly-arrived Americans, still finding their feet in a hard, baffling war, far from home. And as the first American general that most people had ever met, Ike performed a valuable function just by being the friendly and diplomatic character that he was, always ready to defuse the tensions and enmities created by the Montgomerys of this world.